A couple of years ago the memoirist and fiction writer Chris Offutt urged me to read Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling, first published in 1966. As promised, it was the kind of infrequent reading experience that can only be described as a revelation. Inexplicably long out of print, its republication by New York Review Books is cause for celebration.
While many debut novels boil and sometimes overboil with a voice edging towards manifesto, few hit their mark with such assuredness, maturity, and authority as Hard Rain Falling. It is not, as it has been often described, a crime novel, though it does concern itself peripherally with criminals and their milieu. I hesitate to call it either a literary or genre work because I’m not sure Mr. Carpenter would have cared about the distinction. By his own admission he aimed to write cleanly, with his intended audience the general public rather than the gatekeepers of academia. Hard Rain Falling is populist fiction at its best. It is not just a good novel. It might be the most unheralded important American novel of the 1960s.
The book begins with a prologue set in eastern Oregon in 1923. A young cowboy named Harmon Wilder meets a sixteen-year old runaway named Annemarie Levitt and impregnates her. She goes away to a home for unwed mothers and returns to Iona alone. Harmon Wilder becomes a hardworking employee of a ranch and a drunk with looks damaged by alcohol and the sun. Annemarie goes to live with the Indians. Harmon is killed at twenty-six when a horse kicks him in the head. Not long after, Annemarie ends her life with a 10-gauge shotgun. Carpenter finishes the prologue in typically terse style: “She was twenty-four at the time. The Indians buried her.”
We first meet Jack Levitt, the abandoned son of Annemarie, in 1947. Having escaped from his orphanage, he now runs with a group of hard teenagers who hang on the corner of Broadway and Yamhill in Portland, Oregon. Jack is large, strong, and good with his hands. He can fight but has no other discernable talent. He’s at the age when the brains of certain boys are disproportionately wired for impulsive behavior over conscience or reason. His needs are elemental:
He knew what he wanted. He wanted some money. He wanted a piece of ass. He wanted a big dinner, with all the trimmings. He wanted a bottle of whiskey.
Jack’s not a sociopath. He’s a young man who’s never been socialized or loved.
In Portland, Jack befriends Denny Mallon, a loose, larcenous boy, and Billy Lancing, a spectacularly talented, genial young pool player who has drifted to town on the hustle. “The color of his skin was a malarial yellow, and it was obvious from that and from his kinky reddish-brown hair that he was a Negro.” The issue of Lancing’s race will reappear throughout the novel, and Carpenter handles it with honesty. Also, Carpenter’s descriptions of pool halls and the intricacies of various billiard games are top shelf, as are his tours of the rooming houses, diners, and boxing arenas of the Pacific Northwest. Fans of Nelson Algren, Walter Tevis’s The Hustler, and W.C. Heinz’s The Professional will find much to admire in this book.
After an incident involving a break-in, Jack is sent to reform school in Woodburn. His stay includes months in solitary, detailed in a frightening, bravura piece of writing by Mr. Carpenter. Jack’s next stop is a stint in the state mental institution in Salem. He is released, boxes semi-professionally, does jail time in Peckham County, Idaho for “rolling a drunk,” and gets work in eastern Oregon, “bucking logs for a wildcat outfit.” Drifting down to San Francisco, he meets up with Denny Mallon, now in his mid-twenties and a full-blown alcoholic, in a pool room. They go to Denny’s room in a flophouse overlooking Turk Street, and hook up with two brittle young women, Mona and Sue. Jack has his way with both of them. The sex is loveless, mechanical, and artfully described by Carpenter. Here Jack begins to feel the first touch of self-awareness and realize his true nature:
You know enough to know how you feel is senseless, but you don’t know enough to know why. Sitting in another lousy hotel room waiting for a couple of girls you’ve never seen before to do a bunch of things you’ve done so many times it makes your skin crawl just o think about it. Things. To do. That you dreamed about when you couldn’t have them. When there was only one thing, really, that made you feel good, and now you’ve done that so many times it’s like masturbating. Except you never really made it, did you. Never really killed anybody. That’s what you always wanted to do, smash the brains out of somebody’s head; break him apart until nothing is left but you. But you never made it.
Jack’s realization is not enough to save him. He hits bottom with Denny Mallon, with Mona, with himself. He goes on a long drinking binge and considers taking his own life:
For a moment he felt a drifting nausea as his mind helplessly moved towards the idea of suicide. He steadied himself and faced it, as he had known all the time he must: I am going to die. Why not now? He felt cold and sick. Well, why not? What the fuck have I got to live for?
The whiskey bottle was in his hand, and he lifted it, holding it up before his eyes. Do I want some of this? Do I want another drink? Suddenly it was very important to know. If he did not want a drink, he did not want anything. If he did not want anything, he might as well die. Because he was already dead.
“Bullshit,” he said aloud. “Bullshit. I’m just in a bad mood.” He tilted the bottle to his mouth and drank, his eyes closed.
Jack stumbles once again, as he knew he would. Trusting the wrong people, not yet fully understanding the mechanics of a system that has kept him incarcerated his whole life, he’s sentenced to adult time at San Quentin in Chino. There he meets up again with Billy Lancing, in for “bopping” a check. They become cellmates and confidantes. And, in what must have been a shocking plot development at the time of the book’s release, they become lovers. Carpenter’s handling of masculinity issues and homosexuality at San Quentin, where “the prison seemed alive with affairs,” is matter-of-fact, non-exploitive, and frequently moving.
One day while Jack was walking past the salad table with a stack of hot clipper racks, he happened to glance over in time to see one man slip a plastic ring on the finger of another man. Both were ordinary-looking men, one a burglar and the other a thief, but the expressions on their faces were ones Jack could never remember having seen on a man: one of them shy and coy, an outrageous burlesque of maiden modesty; the other simpering with equally feminine aggressiveness.
Billy confesses that he has fallen in love with Jack, and asks Jack for reciprocal words. Jack can’t bring himself to say them or give his friend one kiss. What happens next will chill the reader to the bone and impact Jack so spiritually that it puts him on a new road.
The next section of the novel takes place from 1956 to 1960 and details Jack’s improbable but wholly believable transformation. Because Carpenter is a realist, he knows that the damage done to Jack at his very core can never truly be healed. So we leave Jack Levitt broken but not defeated, drinking a wealthy man’s fine whiskey. It is an oddly optimistic ending, a gift from a writer who saw the beauty in the here and now. Jack has the day and a future. It is all any of us can hope for.
Hard Rain Falling tells a ripping good story, but it is above all else a novel of ideas. It falls squarely in the tradition of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Norman Mailer’s An American Dream, books that prefigured the counterculture movement in their challenge to conformity and the system. As in all good literature, it attempts to answer the question of why we’re here and does so in a provocative way. It’s the kind of novel that can and should be read many times over. It sent me back to my desk, jacked up on ambition.
Writers write for various reasons: money, fame, pleasure, posterity. Don Carpenter did not receive international acclaim or a great deal of wealth in his lifetime. Maybe he wanted it; it’s not for me to say. I like to think that he was in the posterity camp. Certainly his work bears that out.
“I’m an atheist,” said Carpenter, in a 1975 interview. “I don’t see any moral superstructure to the universe at all. I consider my work optimistic in that the people, during the period I’m writing about them, are experiencing intense emotion. It is my belief that this is all there is to it. There is nothing beyond this.”
And yet, he found a piece of immortality with this book.
This piece originally ran as the introduction to the NYRB Classics publication of Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling.